GLOBALCIT Review Symposium of Allegiance, Citizenship and the Law: The Enigma of Belonging by Helen Irving


On a plural and democratically committed citizenry

Marta Bivand Erdal (Peace Research Institute Oslo)

Does citizenship involve any commitment?

Questions of loyalty are pervasive in the contexts of citizenship and belonging. This is not least the case when it comes to the intersection with migration-related diversity, and thus the inclusion of new citizens in the fold of an existing citizenry. The infamous ‘cricket test’, according to which it was argued by Lord Tebbitt in 1990 that until immigrants support the England cricket team their loyalty to Britain should be questioned, illustrates this. The issue of which team you support, and thus whose team you are on, remains relevant, at both the individual and collective level (Sejersen 2008). Can you be one of ‘us’ – if you are also one of ‘them’? And what are the implications then, for your commitment to ‘us’?

Questions of loyalty, belonging, and which social bonds hold together a citizenry, are at the core of Helen Irving’s book Allegiance, citizenship and the law: The enigma of belonging. Historically, as the book demonstrates, allegiance has been a central premise for citizenship. This was connected with the protection it could offer, therefore that allegiance pointed towards the guarantor of such protection – the sovereign, or ruler.

In the contemporary world, in societies which strive for democracy, the notion of allegiance to a ruler is, according to Irving, obsolete. Meanwhile the question remains – does citizenship involve any commitment? And if so, how might one describe this commitment, in terms of allegiance or loyalty, as duties or otherwise? And as I will focus on in my commentary, less ‘to whom’ – but ‘with whom’.

The value of citizenship – which view?

Before proceeding to propose a bottom-up view of citizenship as ‘experienced’, I would like to take a step back, and reflect on which view of citizenship Irving puts in focus. This is a comment made with great respect for the depth and careful thought which Irving’s book represents. And yet, at a historical juncture where we are rightly scrutinizing how our lenses on the world, and on the questions which we ask, are associated with who we are in the world, I found myself wondering, which view of citizenship constitutes the ‘spectacles’ through which it is discussed in this book?  And perhaps more importantly, what are the implications for what is out of view?

Calls for decolonizing migration studies are abound, and similarly across other fields of study, disciplinary, thematic, is my main concern here – in relation to the geographic scope for discussions which otherwise appear to hold global relevance. Increasingly in citizenship studies a more global view is being taken, the Global Citizenship Observatory being one visible marker of this. Yet in the book, whether historical references, or more contemporary examples and illustrations tend to draw on European, North American, as well as the Australian contexts. These are relevant and well-chosen; however, it might be interesting to ask, would the perspective on questions of allegiance and loyalty, or on membership and social bonds, and their relevance for the potential democratic roles of citizenship have been different, had the examples engaged with had a different geographic scope? Not as a replacement, but as a set of diverse and complementary views?

Experienced citizenship

In the last couple of decades, the body of research in citizenship studies which draws on bottom-up perspectives of ‘experienced citizenship’ has been expanding. The concept can also refer to lived or active citizenship. However, here I would like to stay with experiences as linked specifically to formal citizenship status (Birkvad 2019), as a suggested complementary body of work to read alongside the historical, legal, and normative view offered by Irving.

An illustrative area where I suggest value can be added through such a complementary exercise is that of motivations for naturalization (p. 156-157). It is well-known that different passports hold different mobility value in today’s world, which clearly plays a role in relation to citizenship acquisition, alongside a desire for safety and stability, and the right to enter and remain within the territory of the nation-state (Midtbøen et al. 2020). However, research indicates that motivations for naturalization are oftentimes mixed. Yes, constituted by what some describe as instrumental motivations, but also by territorial anchoring which sits at the intersections of political rights, desired safety, emergent (if ambivalent) belonging, also in ways that could arguably be understood as commitment (Erdal et al. 2018).

Citizenship as membership – of what?

Given the salience of citizenship for uniting the demographic base of nation-states in today’s world, it appears pertinent to focus further on the issue of membership, also in the context of questions of allegiance, loyalty, or commitment (Bloemraad 2022). That is to focus more on the horizontal axis – the citizen-to-citizen relationships that underpin the necessary sense of political community at the core of Irving’s democratically oriented concern (e.g. p. 140).

Membership of what, one might ask? Of the nation-state’s political community, is one iteration of an answer, which as is immediately obvious, contains as many new questions, as a clear answer. For what is the basis then of the ‘we-hood’ that is a necessary condition for fostering social bonds that will hold, especially in times of crisis, disruption, and disagreement? And what ought the strength of such bonds be? As will become clear, the notion of weak ties as sufficient, in the context especially of democratic societies, is one I would question.

Drawing on substantial debates in normative political theory, within philosophy and political science, Irving, as many others, refers to a ‘post-national quest for social cohesion’ (p. 164). Coming at this profound challenge from the perspective of research on everyday nationhood, with a bottom-up view, offers a complementary perspective. Drawing on research in a diverse demographic reality among youth in Norway (Erdal 2019), the question of what might be shared, what might be uniting, and whether or not that could or should be tied to the nation, was often messy and contested. Meanwhile, it was also implicitly assumed (Clarke 2023). The nation-state frame in this context was pervasive, linguistically, structurally, and through educational systems, as is in fact the case also elsewhere. But this was also a diverse reality full of friendships, a will to share a future – differences and disagreements acknowledged, with no assumptions that this would be friction-free.

Ultimately, one might argue that what emerged could be described as a ‘plural nation’ – an everyday, dynamic and both changing and changeable sense of togetherness (Erdal 2019). The stakes of togetherness were anchored in a contested sense of nationness, on the backdrop of the reality of actually living in and (for the vast majority of youth involved in the research) being citizens of a specific nation-state. Finally, this was also profoundly intertwined with the nation-state’s territoriality – as a reflection of individual’s lives being lived in specific places within that nation state, at any given moment.

Territorial anchoring and ‘jus domicile’

A territorial focus can unite a state perspective and that of people’s lived experiences as grounded. Irving describes the potential uniting power herein in terms of a ‘legally shared territoriality’ (p. 165) that citizens (and other residents varyingly) have in common. The idea of citizenship based on territoriality is of course familiar, both in terms of jus soli, as the logic of how citizenship is acquired by birth within a given state’s territory. A linked idea is that of ‘jus domicile’ – which is de facto the logic underlying policies of citizenship acquisition via naturalization where length of residency is usually a key criterion (Erdal & Sagmo 2017).

Furthermore, ‘jus domicile’ has been developed as a possible model for thinking practically about citizenship, in relation to democratic rights, and issues of taxation, and residence by Harald Bauder (2014). He proposes a one-at-a-time approach to citizenship, based on place of residence, arguing that this model would secure the democratic legitimacy of citizenship, and enhance the practical everyday commitment of citizen-residents within a given polity.

Returning to the matter of horizontal citizen-to-citizen relations, it is clear that a sense of togetherness and even unity can be fostered in relation to living in the same geographically bounded areas, often experienced at geographic scales below that of the nation-state itself. In these places, a sense of commitment and duty, may often be discerned. Arguably though, both ideas of ‘jus domicile’ as a somewhat transactional democratic model of citizenship, and what I interpret as a rather weak form of togetherness in Irving’s ‘legally shared territoriality’ miss out on some aspects of becoming and emergent belonging and emotional attachment, which research on lived experience is indicative of.

That is not at all to discount the multiple ways in which a sense of equal belonging and recognition is often-times denied to citizens, for instance in European countries (Birkvad 2019), and yet, that is always one aspect among several, of differing iterations of lived experience in these societies (Erdal et al. 2018). To what extent citizenship matters for experienced togetherness in diverse societies, remains a question with no clear conclusion in current research, and I recognize that my view that it does, and should, and that this also can hold democratic potential, may be a minority view.

Plural belonging and committed democratic citizens?

Membership is not per se exclusive. The expansion of dual citizenship, both with the possibilities offered by states, and the embracing of this opportunity by people around the world, is indicative that this is also true for citizenship as a membership-granting-mechanism (Faist 2017). Meanwhile, this means that in effect, you can be one of ‘us’ and also one of ‘them’. While there may be mixed motivations for holding dual citizenship, we also know that belonging can be multiple, and can over the long-term be changeable. What then of allegiance or loyalty, of duties and commitment – and as has been my concern – primarily in relation to whom?

Turning again to research on the ways in which people experience and practice lives that stretch across geographic distance and international borders, it is abundantly clear that multiple belonging – and indeed commitments of different sorts, occur and are negotiated. Often experiences of multiple belonging, as discussed in research on migrant transnationalism, are reflected upon as challenging, fractured, and ambivalent, yet they are there, and are experienced as part of people’s life-worlds, as potentially enriching and sometimes deeply meaningful (Erdal & Sagmo 2017).

Simultaneously, most people live their lives in specific places around the world, and as such, Irving’s perspective on citizens’ shared legal interests (p. 183), within democracies, as being tied to a desire for a shared, equitable form of self-governance within a territory, is important. Bringing in more bottom-up perspectives from people – citizens and resident non-citizens – arguably suggests a need for somewhat more emphasis on membership in discussions of citizenship, not least in the context of democratic processes. Much research, importantly, emphasizes the politics of belonging, and the exclusionary dimensions of groupness, with direct links to questions of citizenship (Spiro 2016; Bloemraad 2022).

In addition to this, we need to look further into the empirically observable and arguably necessary mix of weaker but also stronger social bonds of membership, that are a key constituent of citizenship as its horizontal axis. For nation-states, getting the interaction of the horizontal and vertical axis of citizenship right, becomes an increasingly pressing question, as societies diversify, and that diversity is increasingly being recognized and becoming more vocal. As such citizenship, including some forms of commitment to territorially anchored democracy, as Irving suggests, ought to be understood as central to concerns about democratic processes and democracy in societies across many parts of the world today.